National Column: Playground shooting a reckoning point for a city simmering with gun violence

by Rosie DiManno

A sign on the east wall of the tiny playground warns: “No running, pushing or shoving.”

It doesn’t say: No shooting.

And who would heed it anyway, when the city has reached an urban boiling point where reckless
gunfire is sprayed at a local neighbourhood sanctuary crowded with youngsters, in broad daylight?

Ten bullet holes, circled in black marker, pierce the wooden fence that rings the back side of the parkette on Alton Towers Circle in far-flung Scarborough.

Stick a pencil in the holes and it’s clear the bullets’ trajectory was downward, the shooter probably standing on a berm at the edge of an adjoining parking lot.

Able to see over the fence, presumably, at his target, the only adult, or adolescent, who was in the playground along with 11 kids at about 5 p.m. Thursday.

Too cowardly to come closer, presumably, and aim at the person he clearly intended to kill.

Instead, wantonly putting the lives of all those little ones at risk. Then jumping into a vehicle that peeled away.

Two girls, sisters ages 5 and 9, were struck, recovering at Sick Kids from their wounds, the younger shot in the abdomen, critically injured, the older shot in the ankle. They’re going to be OK, their condition stable after each had undergone surgery.

Jaida Hussey was on the slide – the only playground apparatus on the site – when the shooting
erupted, too young to understand what was happening.

Asked her age, Jaida counts on her fingers. “Seven.”

A playmate of the victims, all attending the same school, Divine Infant Catholic School.

“It was scary,” the child told the Star. “I saw them on the ground. They were crying. But not that much.”

Jaida’s older sister was there. So was a 10-year-old cousin.

Doing what kids do on a warm late spring day, after school, before being summoned home for dinner.

Playing off their youthful energy.

A safe place in a tightly knit community, tidy Milliken Property Co-op, where parents can keep an easy eye on their children. Residents arenít fearful here, certainly never expected violence to spill over into their cosy oasis.

So quiet on Friday but for the barking of dogs and TV reporters doing their stand-ups, until children began winding home from school, most of the younger ones gripped in firm handholds by their parents.

But chaotic 24 hours earlier, with children screaming, panicked parents rushing to claim their sons and daughters, after the pop-pop-pop of what many had assumed was firecrackers going off.

One of those parents, a mother, was met by the most horrifying of sights.

“I don’t want to lose you this way.”

That was the mumís plaintive cry, finding her daughters bleeding on the ground.

Derek Wellwood, who does landscaping work in the neighbourhood every month, went over to the
street near the playground after hearing the shots.

He saw a young girl on the ground with half a dozen people hovering over her.

“Thatís when the mother said, ‘I don’t want to lose you this way,'” Wellwood told the Star Friday.

“The little girl said, ‘I don’t feel very well,’ and then a moment later a neighbour came out with a fistful of paper towels, gave it to someone beside her and they put it on her. I did see her vomit on the ground.”

The family of the girls lives a stone’s throw away, mother and six children.

It feels a little bit like old Toronto hereabouts, where neighbours know each other, mind one another’s kids.

Joyce Willis lives a few doors down from the family. She used to babysit one of the girls.

“I was in my backyard watering when my plants when I heard pop-pop-pop, several shots in a row.”

A fleet of ambulances rushed to the scene.

“They’re loving kids,” Willis said. “They’d come up there when I’m in my garden calling out to me, ‘Hi Joyce.’

“It makes me feel sad because they’re little kids.”

Kevin Mendonca, whoís lived at Alton Towers Circle for about 15 years, said he first heard about the gunfire from a police officer who was canvassing the area Thursday.

“I was in shock because this is a pretty good neighbourhood,” he said, adding he wasnít aware of any other recent shootings. “Some fisticuffs maybe. Nothing like this.”

Toronto, which has grown rather numb to shootings and murder – a dozen over the past six weeks – is stunned out of its lassitude by the repellent circumstances of this one. Everybody thinking: It could have been my kid. It could have been so much worse too.

The girlsí principal, Mark Novis, was at the hospital Thursday evening.

“It’s a tragedy,” he said Friday. “It’s something that’s not supposed to happen in communities of children. Itís not supposed to happen, period. These children are beautiful, full of life, full of energy, full of excitement, full of love.”

Family members, shaken to the core, are trying to support each other.

“Momís in shock, but she’s coping,” Novis said. “She’s going to be there for her daughters.

“They’re innocent girls that need to have a better chance at everything that life has to offer, not to be inundated or concerned with safety, just by playing in their own playground.”

An entire city trying to get a grip, on the same day that police announced a 13-year-old – a 13-year-old – had been charged with first-degree murder in the slaying of a 19-year-old cyclist in Little Portugal last weekend, a teenager who was intentionally struck by an SUV, the vehicleís occupants then jumping out, beating and stabbing the victim to death. A 17-year-old had earlier been charged in that homicide.

What is becoming of us? Is this what it takes to jolt Toronto out of its comfort zone?

“Despicable” and “anti-social,” Mayor John Tory told reporters Friday morning.

“Today, two young girls woke up in Sick Kids Hospital, the victims of a totally unacceptable act of gun violence. Those who would fire into a playground – full of kids playing, with so little care, don’t deserve to be among us here in the society that we are building.”

A society that is fraying at the edges, in high-risk and low-risk neighbourhoods, from gun violence.

Tory visited Alton Towers Circle later in the afternoon, if only to make common cause with residents, to reassure, in so far as any politician can, even as the Toronto Police Association president was making the media rounds, railing against staffing economies that have allegedly strained city policing resources beyond danger levels.

“Astonished is a word that doesnít even begin to describe my own feelings,” Tory said. “I am horrified by this. But one thing Iím heartened by, and I think the family was Ö is that police are working aggressively, and with full resources deployed, to track these people, these profoundly anti-social sewer rats down.”

The mayor comforted one little girl, 9-year-old Jessica Cunningham, another schoolmate of the victims. “I’m sad that they got shot.”

Tory: “The police are here to keep you safe. We’re going to get to the bottom of this, OK?”

That message was echoed by Insp. Mark Barkley, though he declined to provide details of the investigation, other than confirming that police had recovered the vehicle, a Nissan Versa sedan, which may have been the getaway car. It was found about 11:30 Friday morning, at Liverpool Rd. and Highway 2 in Pickering. Barkley would not say if the vehicle had been stolen.

“The investigation has continued since the moment of the first arrival of officers yesterday, it
continued all through the night, it has continued all today, and it will continue non-stop until we have in our custody everybody that was responsible for this incident.”

From his careful choice of words, Barkley insinuated that police are looking for more than one suspect, perhaps the shooter and a driver.

But there’s also the apparent target still out there somewhere, who must now realize that his life is at grave risk from someone who will take no cautions to kill him. That individual needs to seek protection from police.

Investigators are keen for any help the public can provide.

Barkley: “Our message to all person that may be involved in this – come forward, contact us.”

The officerís gut response to the shooting was no different from everyone elseís.

“Why? How? Who? Find them. Get íem in jail.”

With files from Julian Gignac
and Jennifer Pagliaro
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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